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Why are we still so obsessed with Lizzie Borden?

It’s been 125 years since Borden’s father and stepmother were hacked to death. Why we, and the author of the sensual new novel See What I Have Done, can’t let it go.

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Atlantic Monthly Press; Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

See What I Have Done

type:
Book
genre:
Historical Fiction
publisher:
Atlantic Monthly Press
pages:
324
publication date:
08/01/17
author:
Sarah Schmidt

We gave it an A-

Whether Lizzie Borden ever really took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks, then turned and gave her father 41, we’ll never know for sure; there was no CSI in 1892, and she was acquitted—in 90 minutes, no less—by a jury of her peers. So why do we still care so much? More than a century on, the legend of a mad blade-wielding spinster persists. Like so many others, Sarah Schmidt, the author of the richly imagined new novel See What I Have Done, became captivated by the crime long before she turned it into art. A librarian in Australia who worked on fiction in her spare time, she claims she was visited by Lizzie night after night in a recurring dream. Disturbed and intrigued, Schmidt steeped herself in Borden lore; she read trial transcripts and even flew 10,000 miles from her home in Melbourne to sleep in the house in Fall River, Mass., where her muse spent half her life and purportedly, one hot August morning, lost her mind.

See is the product of 11 years of that obsession, and it’s a prickly, unsettling wonder: a story so tactile and feverishly surreal it feels like a sort of reverse haunting. Of the book’s four narrators, three are pulled straight from history: Lizzie, her sister Emma, and the Borden’s live-in help, Bridget. The fourth, a violent drifter named Benjamin whose fate will collide with theirs in mostly unseen ways, is Schmidt’s own creation. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie takes the lead, though she’s hardly an ordinary heroine: A virginal, high-strung woman-child, she is alternately indulged and oppressed, fussing over her pet pigeons and shoving gritty spoonfuls of sugar directly into her mouth when her imperious stepmother isn’t looking. She’s also a brat—bossy, petulant, and rude. Emma, a decade older, chafes nearly as much at the mean smallness of their lives, though she has the awareness to wear it more gracefully. (And the resources to find her own escape as the houseguest of a sympathetic friend.) Irish-born Bridget, homesick and overworked, has come to hate her casually cruel employers; the furious Benjamin just hates everyone, especially the entitled fools who take for granted the many things he’s been denied.

The table of misery is set, but is there motivation enough for murder? It would spoil Schmidt’s literary game to say too much. What she does do, in dense, swooning paragraphs, is build an indelible mood. In one rapturous passage, Lizzie recalls her only great adventure, 10 weeks on a grand European tour chaperoned by distant cousins. She doesn’t just see the continent, she devours it:

Butter, duck fat, liver fat, triple-cream brie, deep cherry-red wines, pear, clementine and lavender jelly, creme cakes, caviar, escargot in sautéed pine nuts and garlic butter. I did what the French did, licked my fingers, didn’t care if people saw, what they thought. Father would’ve hated it, would have told me I was uncouth. I ate everything up, ate his money, was delightful everywhere I went.

(And her appetite isn’t confined to pâté; at one point she runs her tongue along the velvet brim of a sunbonnet in a London shop, overcome.) But her brief taste of emancipation only makes it harder to return to the mouse-drab claustrophobia of home, with its dry biscuits and rancid mutton broth, loaded silences and long, empty afternoons.

As much as See is Borden’s story, it’s also an unvarnished glimpse of what it means to be female, in ways not strictly confined to the late 19th century. Lizzie and her sister, privileged by wealth and status but bound in almost every other way by the conventions of the day, are consigned to a particular fate largely because they are not beautiful. Bridget’s every waking moment is subject to the family’s whims, and so are her wages; with the little tin that holds her life savings in the elderly Mrs. Borden’s hands, she couldn’t leave if she wanted to. The ugly things that incubate in that kind of desperation don’t bode well for anyone, but they do signal the deeper things that salacious tales of Women Who Kill hardly ever touch on, or gloss over in their race to get to the gory bits. Someone who has never had agency over anything—an old maid, a housemaid, a train-hopping vagrant—suddenly found a power more persuasive than anything on the other end of an ax handle. Though they would still have to be capable, of course, of crossing what most would consider an uncrossable line. The proxy thrill of a real-life murderess, maybe, is in that disconnect: that the fairer sex, biologically designed to birth and nurture life, might just decide one day to take it away.

Schmidt’s style has its quirks. She drops definite articles, repeats phrases like incantations, and has a habit of turning unlikely nouns (termite, critter) into verbs. The vast gaps in her characters’ education and experience somehow still allow them to share the same distinctive voice. But her protagonist comes more fully alive than almost any character in recent memory, and the final pages are a wild, mind-bending revelation. Maybe she was unhinged, or perfectly sane; maybe she was framed, or should have run away. The only fact that seems immutably true is that Lizzie Borden wanted more than anything to be free. What she got instead was infamy. A-